were hammers not sooner introduced after the natural suggestion of the Dulcimer, instead of the field being so long occupied by the less effective jack and tangent contrivances? The chasm untraversable by all forgotten Cristoforis and Schröters was the gap between wrestplank and soundboard, for the passage of the hammers, which weakened the frame and prohibited the introduction of thicker strings strong enough to withstand the impact of hammers. It took more than three hundred years to bridge this chasm by stronger framing, and thus render hammers possible.
As pianofortes have been made in three quite different shapes, the grand, the square, and the upright, there were as many varieties of the jack instruments—to wit, the harpsichord proper (clavicembalo, clavecin, or flügel) of trapeze form; the clavicordo, of oblong or pentangular form, frequently called spinet or virginal; and the upright harpsichord, or clavicytherium. It must be remembered that the long harpsichords were often described as spinet or virginal, from their plectra or their use by young ladies; but the table-shaped ones known commonly by the latter names were never called harpsichords. No specimen of the upright harpsichord seems to exist, yet the instrument has been made in a comparatively recent period, since a receipt for one, dated 1753, and signed by the maker, Samuel Blumer, 'Harpsichord and Spinet Maker in Great Poultney Street, near Golden Square, London. N.B. Late foreman to Mr. Shudi,' is in the possession of Messrs. Broadwood. [App. p.668 "Respecting upright harpsichords, see Upright Grand Piano, vol. iv. p. 208b, l. 1–19."]
We are spared the necessity of reconstructing the older harpsichords from the obscure and often inaccurate allusions of the older writers, such as Virdung and Kircher, by the valuable collection now in South Kensington Museum, that includes instruments of this family dating from A.D. 1555 [App. p.668 "1521"] to Pascal Taskin, A.D. 1786. In private hands, but accessible to the enquirer, are large harpsichords by Tschudi and by Kirkman, still playable. The oldest harpsichord in the Museum is a Venetian clavicembalo [App. p. 668 "For the oldest known harpsichord see Spinet vol. iii. p. 652a, footnote. The second harpsichord mentioned in the footnote, now (1888) belonging to Mr. Hwfa Williams, is not nearly so old as the South Kensington instrument, the date of it being 1626 (not 1526). A restorer has unfortunately altered the interesting long measure keyboard which it lately retained, to the modern chromatic arrangement of the lowest octave"], signed and dated 'Joanes Antonius Baffo, Venetus, 1574.' It has a compass of 4½ octaves, from C to F, the extreme limits of the human voice.
Raising the top and looking inside, we observe the harp-like disposition of the strings as in a modern grand piano, which led Galilei, the father of the astronomer Galileo, to infer the direct derivation of the harpsichord from the harp. In front, immediately over the keys, is the wrestplank, with the tuning-pins inserted, round which are wound the nearer ends of the strings—in this instrument two to each note—the further ends being attached to hitchpins, driven into the soundboard itself, and following the angle of the bent side of the case to the narrow end, where the longest strings are stretched. There is a straight bridge along the edge of the wrestplank, and a curved bridge upon the soundboard. The strings pass over these bridges, between which they vibrate, and the impulse of their vibrations is communicated by the curved bridge to the soundboard. The plectra or jacks, with the exception that they carry points of leather instead of quill, are the same as in later instruments. [See Jack.] This Venetian harpsichord has a separate case, from which it could be withdrawn for performance, a contrivance usual in Italy, the outer case being frequently adorned with painting. The raised blocks on each side the keys, by which the instrument was drawn out of the case, survived long after, when there was no outer case. Lastly, the natural keys are white and the sharps black, the rule in Italian keyed instruments, the German practice having been the reverse.
Reference to the oblong 'clavicordi,' in which South Kensington Museum is rich, will be found under Spinet. The actual workmanship of all these Italian keyed instruments was indifferent; we must turn to the Netherlands for that care in manipulation and choice of materials which, united with constructive ingenuity equalling that of the best Italian artists, culminated in the Double Harpsichords of the Ruckers family of Antwerp. [See Ruckers.]
Of this family there were four members living and working between 1579 and 1651 or later, who achieved great reputation. Their instruments are known by their signatures; and by the monograms forming the ornamental rosette or soundhole in the soundboard—a survival from the psaltery. The great improvement of the harpsichord is attributed to Hans, the eldest, who, by adding to the two unison strings of each note a third of shorter length and finer wire tuned an octave higher, increased the power and brilliancy of the tone. To employ this addition at will, alone, or with one or both the unison strings, he contrived, after the example of the organ, a second keyboard, and stops to be moved by the hand, for the control of the registers or slides of jacks acting upon the strings. By these expedients all the legitimate variety ever given to the instrument was secured. The Ruckers harpsichord given by Messrs. Broadwood to South Kensington Museum, signed and dated 'Andreas Ruckers me fecit Antverpiæ 1651' (see next page), said to have been left by Handel to Christopher Smith, shows these additions to the construction, and was, in the writer's remembrance, before the soundboard gave way, of deliciously soft and delicately reedy timbre. The tension being comparatively small, these harpsichords lasted much longer than our modern pianofortes, even of the best construction. James Shudi Broadwood ('Notes,' 1838) states that many Ruckers harpsichords were in existence and good condition until nearly the end of the last century, and fetched high prices; one having sold in 1770 for 3000 francs (£120).
When the Ruckers family passed away we hear no more of Antwerp as the city of harpsichord
- The oldest trace in the Netherlands of the harpsichord or clavecin is that a house in Antwerp, in the parish of Notre Dame, bore in 1582 the name of 'de Clavizimbele.'